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How the Evolution of Digital Marketing Strategy Has Brands Questioning Agencies

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Just when you’ve come to terms with the fact that you need to be proactive about your blog, some are saying you may already be too late. Marketing is evolving at a frenetic pace. How can you keep up and hone in on what matters for your digital marketing strategy without wasting time and resources on here-today, gone-tomorrow fads?

First and foremost, you focus on visuals.

Today, words on a page just aren’t enough to propel a content strategy into greatness—they need to be complemented by strong, telling visuals. But the thing is, that’s always been the case—it’s just that now, brands have to refocus their efforts on cost-effective ways to produce visual content at scale. As a result, we’re more aware of the cost of the most compelling elements of our strategies.

What caused this sudden shift to in-house visual content creation? Today, we’ll take a step back, tracing the evolution of visual content marketing and plotting its trajectory as brands, agencies, managers, and managing directors alike try to figure out what’s next in this medium.

Where has visual content marketing been, where is it now, and where is it going?

Digital Visual Content Is Rooted in Brand Marketing Teams

More often than not, digital visual content started out as traditional content that was “translated” to digital. A campaign would be launched with a digital component bolted onto its side. Digital was an afterthought, and visual digital elements took a back seat to other media. This is evidenced in the awkwardness of content used online. In a recent Content Standard post by Kyle Harper, he pointed to the first-ever banner ad on the web. Take a moment to look that over.

It’s not exactly inspired design—at least, by modern marketing standards. And though it worked at the time, there’s a reason it looks so funny to us today: visual marketing has (thankfully) evolved.

Initially, the treatment of visual content was left in the hands of in-house media teams. Digital marketing was in its infancy, and brands were asked to figure things out on their own in many cases. Once companies started shifting their efforts toward digital, many brands attempted to “convert” their existing traditional content and design teams into digital teams—or, they at least asked them to work on both digital and traditional projects.

“Content is content” is true, sometimes, but not everything produced for off-line consumption has a natural digital translation. The same is the case in reverse as well, and brands started to see traditional–digital content creation was more dynamic than they expected.

Once brands realized how specialized the digital shift really was, many organizations started turning to agencies and began outsourcing this kind of specialized, quality talent.

The Old Brand–Agency Dynamic: Cyclical Innovation

Agencies have always played their roles in the marketing world. But because many brands work with agencies in varying capacities, the nature of brand–agency relationships varies. Previously, I worked with organizations that would engage with agencies for a specific purpose or project. Agency-of-record relationships do still exist in the market today, but they’re not nearly as common as they were just a few decades ago. It’s more common now that brands engage with specialized agencies based on their specific project needs—especially when it comes to projects that fall under the digital marketing strategy umbrella.

In my past few enterprise roles, however, I’ve come to know the brand–agency dynamic as one that’s cyclical in nature, in that the relationship ebbs and flows through periods of innovation and brand self-sustenance. For example, say a brand engaged with an agency for a website relaunch. During the relaunch, there would be tremendous innovation occurring in functionality, in business process improvement, in user experience optimization, and even in creative content development and delivery. Innovation would plateau during the project and be maintained for a period after the project concluded, but then, eventually, would start to decline.

Once the project was complete and the website had launched, the brand would seek to get as close to self-sustenance as possible, relying only rarely on the agency.

In time, the cycle would be repeated, either in a similar project or in a new project that helped to foster further innovation. Brands are capable of innovating on their own, but it seemed that agencies often played key roles in aiding that innovation.

Eventually, things changed. Today, I’m seeing brands uncovering their own ability to innovate and relying less on agencies as their innovation catalysts. Brands are creating their own disruptive forces.

Rise

Unsustainable Innovation and the Rise of New Media Houses

When brands engage with agencies, they do so for a reason. As a brand, you’re paying for the expertise of the agency and you come to expect a certain level of knowledge and ability to execute. Good agencies are not cheap, and are often worth every penny.

The thing is, big-budget engagements just aren’t scalable for anyone—except those with the largest marketing budgets. So many midsize, large, and even enterprise-level brands have begun shifting toward new media houses in attempts to bring some of that quality back in-house again. As costs rise with external agencies and brands try to recover dollars from external relationships, they seem to be shifting once again to in-house, pseudoagency models. A perfect example of this is The New York Times’ T Brand Studio.

T Brand Studio is effectively an in-house marketing agency that produces native advertising content for NYT clients. NYT was one of the early adopters of native advertising and has seen great content strategy success with T Brand Studio. Other companies have taken note and are launching their own in-house content agencies as well. Take Cadillac, for example: a brand not typically known for being a content publisher, the company has partnered with a content team to produce its own version of brand storytelling.

But brands as publishers are not the wave of the future. They’re the present—and in some cases, the recent past. So, what comes next?

The Future of Visual Content Marketing–Breaking the Cycle

Today, more and more brands are developing their own in-house storytelling capabilities—but will that be sustainable? Was Mark Schaefer correct when he proclaimed, “Content Shock is here?” Can brands evolve their messaging fast enough to set themselves apart in a rapidly changing market?

Brands that have proven they can adapt and are capable of innovating on their own will survive and thrive. Still others will turn to agencies as SWAT teams to come in and enact quick changes in a short amount of time and help them to spur innovation in the short-term. I don’t see this trend stopping anytime soon, but agencies can only take a brand so far.

As visual content continues to evolve at an even faster pace, brands will need strong partnerships from both traditional agencies and niche content creators in order to not get left behind in their markets.

Stories will be core components in the future of marketing. They will be because they have to be. Compelling, well-told stories never go out of style and while we will continue to see cycles of innovation in the way stories are presented, the story itself is still at the center. Agencies and content houses can help guide brands in their visual innovation in the telling of that story, but the brand is still ultimately responsible for the stories themselves.

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Daniel has been a software development and digital professional since 1998. He currently serves in a digital marketing leadership role with the 2nd largest healthcare system in the state of Florida. In addition, Daniel is a current member of the Samsung ImageLogger program, a published author and supplements his written work with beautiful, unique and tailored visual content.

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